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Usually when we meet somebody for the first time and one side of their debut is terrific but the flip side is more pedestrian we assume they merely got lucky on that initial offering and the less impressive side is a more accurate assessment of their abilities.

That may be unfair – and some artists prove it wrong pretty quickly and return to a higher caliber output – but it’s hardly being cynical to assume that the record company is going to release an artist’s best effort first, the one they probably worked the longest on perfecting, and after that they settle into whatever range their skills will allow.

Water finds its own level and all that.

But knowing what we know about the future of Jesse Belvin, who made his singing debut on this session, we weren’t nearly as surprised by the brilliance of the top side as we are about the mediocrity of this one, which is why it’s a relief to say that if we are let-down here it’s hardly his fault.


When I First Met You
It goes without saying that the historical stature of an artist invariably plays into someone’s expectations heading into each record being reviewed. Yet it also goes without saying that in the spring of 1951 nobody who heard this record had any expectations whatsoever… at least not about the guys singing on it who were complete unknowns.

If anybody was going to fall prey to not living up to expectations it was Big Jay McNeely whose name this record came out on.

Now to be perfectly fair Don’t Cry Baby is not a bad record. It’s perfectly acceptable and has some really strong qualities to it at times. But it also has some very questionable decisions in how it was performed – or rather who was performing them – which sort of negates the better aspects of it and winds up making the song rather nonessential.

Because nobody outside his friends and family knew who Jesse Belvin was at the time, nor for that matter knew some other names appearing on this release who’d go on to have strong careers of their own chances are this would be seen at the time as nothing more than a halfway decent B-side to a really great single.

But here in 2022 we can’t pretend we don’t know who is who here and treat it like an anonymous group of nobodies.


See If You Change Your Ways
As stated yesterday, Marvin Phillips said the vocal group Three Dots and A Dash were sort of put together on the fly with him, Belvin and Jimmy Huff, all local kids in their late teens who had some experience in the studio already (Phillips had appeared on a number of records playing sax behind The Great Gates) being joined by female vocalist Undine Harris from Georgia whose music teacher was a pianist who’d played with McNeely at some point and suggested her for the job.

Disregard any rumors about Richard Lewis, also a teenage veteran from The Great Gates band who may have introduced Phillips, Belvin and Huff to McNeely, or Betty Jean Washington participating on this session. They didn’t.

The problem isn’t who is present or absent, but who is being tasked with singing which parts that causes Don’t Cry Baby to not quite live up to its potential.

We start off by hearing the vocal group chanting “Cry, cry, cry” while Belvin sings the title line over that in a slightly deeper register than he had on the top side. He had huge range so this is hardly a problem and this part sounds good, but rather than let him take the entire lead, when the verses kick in it’s not Jesse Belvin singing but apparently Jimmy Huff, the kid who wrote it and whom Phillips said wasn’t much of a singer (he was a drummer by trade, though not on this), which this subpar vocal certainly would confirm.

It’s a reedy sounding voice which makes him sound much older than he is thereby robbing this side of the youthful exuberance that made All That Wine Is Gone so special. But beyond that it also conflicts with the backing vocals by Belvin (who you CAN hear in the mix), Phillips (whose voice is easily discernible from his later work) and Harris whose higher register is most prominent in the blend.

They all sound their age and that is the most appealing aspect of this, the loose, slightly sloppy but earnest harmonies they contribute. Huff though, despite being the same age as the others, makes it sound like he’s decades older because of his odd tone and the lyrics which further suggest someone much more experienced. After all, there’s not many teenagers who would be singing about being gone from his “woman” for more than two years because of some dispute and is now on his way home hoping she’s changed her ways.

In other words that’s an adult relationship and the mixture of the younger voices and this older perspective just makes this… uncomfortable.

Of course it also doesn’t help that the structure of the entire song, the main hook in fact, is pretty much lifted intact from The Ravens’ terrific pre-rock side Bye Bye Baby Blues with just the word “Cry” substituted for “Bye”. Now considering their ages and inexperience writing songs this was hardly worth reporting to BMI, but it does make this record something of a throwaway in many respects despite some enjoyable moments from both Belvin and Harris.


Your Daddy’s Coming Home
But what about Big Jay McNeely?!?!?”, you’re surely asking. “Isn’t this HIS record?

Yes, it is, but only nominally, though at least he’s also one of the high points when he gets his chance to chime in.

The lead-in to the song features him mixed in with the rest of the horns on a spry refrain that is suitably energetic even if tonally it’s a little straitlaced. Sort of a big band sound on steroids.

When the vocals start the band is mostly incidental, horns swirling softly in the background only stepping out to respond to each of Huff’s lines the first time through in brief retorts. The next stanza it’s the singers who handle that role, but then McNeely finally gets his standalone spot and while it’s far from his most explosive performance he’s typically solid, playing a melodically inventive, unhurried solo that manages to create some tension by the way in which he builds up and then pauses before building up again.

It doesn’t have a huge payoff, but he’s coaxing all of the right sounds out of his horn to grab you in the gut and even without any honks or squeals it gets the job done and let’s you know that Don’t Cry Baby is a Big Jay McNeely record after all.

But is it a great Big Jay McNeely record? Or a great Jesse Belvin record for that matter? No, it is not.

They All Left You Crying
You can certainly see how this shook out. Huff wrote the songs and knew he couldn’t handle the lead on the best of them which had really strong sales potential so of course Belvin was going to take that one and it paid off with a tremendous performance.

But you know Huff was irked about not getting a chance to sing so on this re-hashed song he gave Belvin the Jimmy Ricks part but had him sing in his baritone range rather than drop to bass thereby further obscuring its origins, while he in turn took the lead on the skimpy verses, hoping that in this way the vocal arrangement itself, rather than the voice dragging it down, would be what got noticed.

Unfortunately he underestimated our tolerance for such things and while Don’t Cry Baby isn’t terrible at all, it’s also a missed chance for everybody involved… everybody that is but Jimmy Huff.

But we can’t get too mad, because unlike most of the others who would get plenty of chances to shine in the future, Huff’s moments in the spotlight were few and far between. They may have all been part of the same teenage clique in Los Angeles in the early fifties but when one of them is named Jesse Belvin you’re always going to take a back seat.

Here Jimmy Huff hastily called shotgun and jumped in the front seat before anyone could offer up a protest, but before long they pulled the car over to the curb and made him get out and walk home.


(Visit the Artist page of Big Jay McNeely for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)